The North-West University’s (NWU’s) Faculty of Theology recently hosted a dialogue session with various religious leaders, representing different denominations, on the topic of “Contending Theologies, Liturgies and Practices: Death, Dying and Funerals in South Africa”.
The dialogue – in partnership with the Vaal Pastor’s Fraternal – afforded theologists and religious leaders the opportunity to engage meaningful on the complex nature of the realities of death, dying and funerals within the South African context.
According to Prof Hans van Deventer, a senior researcher in the faculty, the questions raised by the various church leaders confirmed the relevancy of the topic of discussion as well as the connection between culture, religion and the lived experiences of death and dying.
Questions included: Are expensive funerals necessary? How fitting is the celebrations following the funeral - for example the so-called “after tears” - for the mourning family? How can the church respond to the role and impact of the extended family in organizing the funeral? How can churches raise their voices against injustices that occurs during a time when the immediate family and community are mourning? With these valuable questions posed from experience in the practice field of Christian ministry, church leaders engaged with academics in the activities of reflection, critical thinking and problem solving.
Several experts in the topic field at hand joined in the conversation, including: Prof Simangaliso R Kumalo (University of KwaZulu Natal), Prof Rantoa Letsosa (NWU), Prof Christina Landman (UNISA) and Dr Solomon Oupa Makola (CUT, Free State).
The theme of “Contending Theologies, Liturgies and Practices: Death, Dying and Funerals in South Africa” were further deconstructed by the viewpoints argued by these academics which included:
- How can religious leaders allow their liturgies to transform cultural practices not dealing with the realities of death, dying and funerals in appropriate ways?
- What are the meanings people attach to the practice of a funeral?
- Why do we have funerals?
- What are the underlying factors that inform our practice of funerals and burials?
- What perspectives on death, humanity and God informs how people conduct funerals?
- How can religious leaders assist in facing the reality of death and dying – and the associated pain – for what it is, and not offering ways to escape the pain?
- How can meaning making be facilitated in the midst of death, dying and grieving?
- How can theological norms like human dignity assist religious leaders and churches to deal with death, dying and people in mourning in a respectful manner?
The way forward
According to Prof Van Deventer the value of reciprocal partnerships cannot be emphasised enough. These partnerships – as with the Vaal Pastor’s Fraternal – facilitates cooperation between the university and its communities.
“Within such intercultural spaces of dialogue, awareness can be raised of own life and world views and its position in plural and global contexts,“ explains Prof Van Deventer and adds that by being an engaged faculty, deep theological reflection on contextual issues of public concern can be enhanced, dynamic synergy between the higher education activities of teaching and learning, research and community engagement are possible and can be obtained. He also says that learning experiences like these will assist the faculty in its endeavour to contribute towards the development and transformation of church and society within the South African context.